Noises Off is a meta-theatrical comedy: a farce about the production of a farce, titled Nothing On. But what’s a farce?
Farce is a style of comedy that places exaggerated stock characters into absurd high-pressure situations, resulting in fast, almost-violent slapstick. There’s often a case of mistaken identity, a romantic entanglement or two, and several slamming doors. Audiences delight in farce because it allows us to laugh at human faults and the chaotic, uncontrollable nature of life.
The term farce comes from the Latin term farcire, which means to stuff or to gorge oneself. In the Middle Ages, it was associated with a savory stuffing added to meat dishes, and from there came to mean the short comic interludes added to performances of decidedly unfunny morality plays. Silly moments were “stuffed” into the serious religious works.
Though the word emerged in the 14th century, the style of farce has been around since Greek and Roman times. The genre was the common person's counterpoint to serious plays about gods, kings, and wars. Stock characters were amplified versions of the people encountered in everyday life: the old lecher, the innocent lovers, the nosy mother, the big-talking soldier. These characters struggled through preposterous versions of relatable events: a meeting with future in-laws goes horribly awry, for example.
Commedia dell Arte, which began in Renaissance Italy, developed from these older comedies. Because it was performed in noisy, outdoor locations, it relied on physical action to tell the (usually improvised) story. Character types moved in a recognizable way. Acrobatic stunts were incorporated. One character smacked his victim’s behinds with a “slapstick,” a paddle made of two pieces of wood that created a loud sound when struck against something.
Commedia-style performances spread to France, and writers began scripting plays for it. Moliére, for example, built upon characters and situations from commedia. His early plays, The Flying Doctor and The Imaginary Invalid, are highly physical and farcical.
Playwright Georges Feydeau brought farce into the twentieth century. He tweaked the intricate plot machinery of the popular “well-made play”—a suspenseful plot, coincidences, a secret only some of the characters know, a finally-triumphant hero—for outrageously comedic purposes. Feydeau took situations to extremes in order to push the bounds of conventional taste; for his characters, reputations and respectability were at stake. He was one of the first farceurs to set scenes in the bedroom, where he found a myriad of comic uses for a bed—everything except sex.
Michael Frayn had the idea for Noises Off in 1970 after watching a performance of his play The Two of Us, also a farce, from the wings. Observing actors Richard Briers and Lynn Redgrave struggle with silent quick-changes and rapid entrances and exits, he realized that “it was funnier from behind than in front.” Frayn discovered that the workings of the theatre make great farce. Actors simply must keep going, no matter how badly they screw up, no matter what happens offstage. And audiences, perhaps identifying with the characters’ determination to carry on in a world gone mad, laugh uproariously at every joke.
Noises Off is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Noises Off, Upstage